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In a conversation with a young university student recently, I learned that many students today tend to regard utilitarianism as the best, most optimal way for a society to function. By utilitarianism they mean promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (a view originated by Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832). Students wonder if an Objectivist society would say that if someone "stumbles" and "needs help," he would simply be out of luck, and Objectivists would merely say, "Too bad," and move on with their own lives (and that such "poor souls" would inevitably exist but would be ignored in an Objectivist society). Students do not see why it would be "bad" for a society to "adjust" and "refine" capitalism as needed to make it more "friendly" to the greatest number of people, even if this means sometimes sacrificing a few, to some degree (especially those who already have the most personal wealth and prosperity), for the benefit of the many.

The classic Objectivist response is: "If you want to help others in 'need,' you will not be stopped." (This is almost a verbatim quote from Ayn Rand's article, "Collectivized Ethics," reprinted in VOS, Chapter 10, fourth paragraph.) I wonder if others on this website can suggest additional, possibly more effective responses to give to today's young students insofar as they may still be open to rational elaboration.

I have no experience myself in promoting Objectivism for today's university students, but one point that occurs to me is that "society" is not the true "starting point" for defining a proper society. "Social policy" actually begins with morality, not with the existence or non-existence of a "society," and morality rests on deeper philosophical issues in epistemology and metaphysics. Morality involves questions such as: (a) what should I be free to do if I am in "need"? -- (b) Is it morally right for a society to sacrifice some for the benefit of others (even if those being sacrificed allegedly "can afford it")? -- and (c) How can I or anyone else create my own or his own "safety net"? There is also the philosophical and historical fact that a principle of sacrifice at the root of a society dooms the society to ever-increasing expansions of sacrifice into all phases of life, steadily losing sight of what really promotes "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

Still, Jeremy Bentham himself apparently was highly supportive of individualism, according to the entry on him in The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Edition, by Peter A. Angeles:

Bentham staunchly defended individualism: Each person is the best and final judge of his or her own interests. The individual should never be hindered by an authority, state, or institution from securing his or her own interests.... The purpose of law in all its forms must be to secure and promote "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

Do Bentham and today's university students following his ideas not see that this view of law necessitates a direct contradiction of individualism, namely, sacrifice (possibly limited and occasional) of a few for the benefit of the many? Do they not see clearly where such a premise will inevitably lead over time?

Update: Happiness and Rights

What I find most intriguing about "greatest happiness for the greatest number" is that it upholds happiness as important in human life. That is radically different from altruism, i.e., self-sacrifice as a moral ideal, which exhorts man to abandon aspirations of achieving personal happiness and to live entirely for others (or for "humanity" in general, past, present and future) instead.

As for individual rights, it's not clear to me that college freshmen and sophomores who are just starting to learn about various theories such as utilitarianism understand that a fully consistent implementation of individual rights cannot be further "refined" or "adjusted" to benefit some at others' expense without violating someone's individual rights -- which, in principle, means that a society can dispense with anyone's individual rights if the society deems it expedient. That could, indeed, be a possibly persuasive connection to identify explicitly.

Meanwhile (coincidentally), I've also just started reading Free Market Revolution by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, and I'm finding a wealth of informative, readily accessible insights that could prove highly useful and interesting for college students and others as well.

asked Dec 27 '13 at 12:12

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Dec 29 '13 at 20:04

Utilitarianism ignores human rights; it only takes into account the opinions of the majority. For instance, in the 1860s, the United States had slavery in the South not because it was morally right, but because it was popular amongst the majority--and even then, a black individual's vote was worth 3/5 of a white man's vote. (There was even a consensus on that!) Utilitarianism is not a good system to base decisions on. Look at the Atlas Shrugged references. Reardon Metal was declared unfit and unsafe for use because the opinion of a committee said so? That certainly doesn't mean it is.

(Dec 27 '13 at 15:40) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

I'm actually quite surprised that Ideas for Life would be asking for "ammunition" for his argument against a student. Ideas for Life seems to be one of the most eloquent and articulate person on this site. May I ask how old this student is?

(Dec 27 '13 at 17:25) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

More desirable to whom? Certainly an Objectivist society is not desirable to the likes of Stalin; or a Collin provided, the slave states of the old South. The desire of the majority does not make something morally right.

An argument against the utilitarian one would be to re-frame the target to get them to make their own life the standard instead of the lives of others.

(Dec 28 '13 at 23:22) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Not necessarily. The main argument against utilitarianism is to prove how it fails to take into account of individual rights, then explain where individual rights come from. I think that if you explain what "individual rights" really are and what it means, you are automatically getting people to focus on their own lives as the standard of value, instead of the lives' of others.

(Dec 29 '13 at 00:10) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

By thinking of what is good for the individual, they are thinking of what is good for themselves indirectly. This argument warrants a much longer discussion between the person who describes himself as a utilitarian follower.

(Dec 29 '13 at 00:12) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

"Each person is the best...judge of his or her own interests."

Then utilitarianism is obviously sub-optimal. Even if everyone tried to act in the best interests of everyone else, they couldn't, because each person is the best judge of his or her own interests.

Why would an Objectivist society be more desirable than a Utilitarian one? Because each person is the best judge of his or her own interests.

(Jan 01 '14 at 17:25) anthony anthony's gravatar image

You should ask the question of "who's happiness is the standard?" Then, of course, we know the answer: majority's. Utilitarianism is just another form of collectivism which is pretty weak as an ideal since it depends on the subjective whims of a group as against the right of each individual to pursue its own happiness. Remember that happiness is not a right.

(Jan 07 '14 at 13:33) Juan Diego dAnconia Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image

Regarding the update, I don't think you can successfully argue against utilitarianism by appealing to individual rights, as a utilitarian can simply object that one does not have the right to behave selfishly in a manner which is inconsistent with utilitarianism.

I further think that while "[the] greatest happiness for the greatest number" sounds good as a catchphrase, I think that upon honest examination it either falls apart or reverts to a Pareto optimality which is perfectly compatible with Objectivism and Capitalism. You don't achieve happiness through theft or other rights violations.

(Jan 08 '14 at 18:58) anthony anthony's gravatar image

To put it another way, there's nothing at all wrong with "[the] greatest happiness for the greatest number". But happiness must be properly defined, rationally and objectively. See http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/happiness.html for some of Rand's writings on the meaning of the word "happiness", or better yet, "The Virtue of Selfishness".

(Jan 08 '14 at 19:14) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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I think this is a great answer: "If you want to help others in 'need,' you will not be stopped."

However, the full meaning of this statement will not be apparent to most people. It could use some unpacking and elaboration to help people understand. They aren’t used to statements like this.

To begin with, it says "you" may help others. But it means: you and anyone else who wants to. Someone might be worried he'd have to do it alone and it'd be too big a burden. But he's welcome to recruit help from most people, as long as he can persuade them to help voluntarily. (Which in many cases will be easy – they already agree with him and require no persuasion. But in other cases may be difficult because there is a substantial philosophical disagreement.)

Another aspect of the statement is a rejection of forcing me (or anyone else) to help. I'll help voluntarily when I think it's best, and not otherwise. Anything different than that would mean sometimes being forced to help when I think it is not best – which means, to be forced to betray my own interests and values as I see them.

When there are disagreements (e.g. about how altruist to be), people should convince me with reason, or leave me alone.

The full meaning of this perspective includes a sort of challenge: if you want me to help with some charity project (or really any project, it's the same with non-charity projects), persuade me to do so, but do not force me. (BTW persuading someone to help with a project isn't limited to words, you can also e.g. offer to pay them. Anything voluntary and rights-respecting is fair game.)

There's a quote I like about this, from an old classical liberal philosopher, William Godwin. From An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice:

Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.

All decent people do use persuasion when they can succeed with it. It's cheaper, easier and nicer than using force. They prefer it. It's only when they can't get their way by persuasion that they become interested in using force. But one's inability to be persuasive on a topic is an extremely bad justification for force!

For particularly confused people, a lot more elaboration than this may be necessary about the differences between voluntary action and force, individual freedom and controlling others, and so on. That can be found in Rand's books, among other places. I suspect the questioner could do more unpacking himself. My goal here is to indicate an approach to the issue that I think he'll understand.


As a second approach, when speaking to utilitarians, I would suggest pointing out the vague nature of utilitarianism. What is the greatest happiness for the greatest number? It sounds meaningful, but it's actually undefined and deeply ambiguous.

There is no procedure for evaluating an individual's happiness as a single number. And there is no procedure for combining together multiple people's happiness into a sum. And there's also the problem of how to approach total happiness over time, e.g. does the infinite potential future infinitely outweigh the importance of current happiness?

For some elaboration of this, I like The Order of Things. The article discusses the difficulties of combining multiple factors (e.g. happiness with one's job, happiness with one's social life, happiness with one's philosophy, unhappiness) into one number which can be used in rankings.

Another difficulty is if you ask people to rank how happy they are 1-10, and one guy says 5 and one says 8, you don't know who is actually happier. There's no way to get them talking about the same scale because there are no well-defined measurable units of happiness to guide them in what number to answer with.


Another issue is that collectivist-altruist methods of organizing society lead to misery and destruction. But rather than elaborate on that directly, I want to talk about the style of how to answer, which I learned about from Objectivism.

I think it's very important to be clear about the stakes. Don't soft-sell these things. Don't concede anything. Don't say freedom is only a little better. Don't say utilitarianism is inefficient (it is, but calling it merely inefficient would lift it far above it's true status). Be harsh by conventional standards. There is a truth of the matter here, it matters, you know about it, and collectivism and utilitarianism and altruism and so on lead to nothing less than abject misery and large-scale destruction. Be very clear that the difference between what you have to offer, and their current position, is life or death, so they really ought to learn better. It's crucially important that they study this better, including opposing positions (e.g. Objectivism), and find out what actually is and isn't compatible with human welfare.

Don't agree to disagree. Don't grant them sanction as a reasonable person with a difference of opinion on this matter. Say that in your mind, their position on this matter is unreasonable, destructive and illegitimate. Say that you can respect them as a student who is learning and may make mistakes, but utilitarianism is not something you can respect, it's outside the bounds of civil ideas. It's OK to consider utilitarianism philosophically and learn about it, but if he ever moves on to trying to practice it then he is your enemy, working against your values. Utilitarianism is that bad.

Don't leave the big bold claims to global warming activists and other leftists. Objectivism has strong and important ideas. They are the truth, so say them proudly and clearly.

For Objectivist sources on this perspective, a great one is, "How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?" in VoS:

I will confine my answer to a single, fundamental aspect of this question. I will name only one principle, the opposite of the idea which is so prevalent today and which is responsible for the spread of evil in the world. That principle is: One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment. Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.

Distinguishing good and evil, and pronouncing moral judgment, and refusing to be morally tolerant of evil ideas, are the sorts of things I'm talking about.

Also, tell him clearly that a morality without compromises and moral grayness is possible. And that you know it, and he can too, and it's called Objectivism.

The policy of always pronouncing moral judgment does not mean that one must regard oneself as a missionary charged with the responsibility of “saving everyone’s soul”—nor that one must give unsolicited moral appraisals to all those one meets. It means: (a) that one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one’s own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals, and act accordingly; (b) that one must make one’s moral evaluation known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so.

You don't have to go out of your way to speak to everyone. But if you do have a discussion with a utilitarian who is reasonable enough for it to actually be a discussion, then it's rationally appropriate (and therefore required by Objectivism) to tell him your moral evaluations of the issues you discuss. And your moral evaluations better be clear and, for an issue like this, stark, black and white, harsh, etc.

I think by following Objectivism like this, one will be much more persuasive. Even most people who like Objectivism seem to be scared to take this kind of approach seriously, but I think Rand had it right and it's really important.

An irrational society is a society of moral cowards—of men paralyzed by the loss of moral standards, principles and goals. But since men have to act, so long as they live, such a society is ready to be taken over by anyone willing to set its direction. The initiative can come from only two types of men: either from the man who is willing to assume the responsibility of asserting rational values—or from the thug who is not troubled by questions of responsibility.

answered Dec 04 '14 at 23:10

Curi's gravatar image


edited Dec 06 '14 at 22:25

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Asked: Dec 27 '13 at 12:12

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Last updated: Dec 06 '14 at 22:25